Banker White takes us through the impermanence of memory and familial filmmaking in his documentary on his mother and mother's mother, The Genius of Marian.
Artist Banker White’s second documentary feature, The Genius of Marian, tells the story of the filmmaker’s mother, Pamela White. When White started filming with her almost three years ago, Pamela was experiencing symptoms of what was to be diagnosed as early onset Alzheimer’s dementia—the same disease her own mother, Marian, had when Marian was in her 80s.
Using a collage of Super-8 family home movies and other evocative archival set against this intimate family drama from the White family home in New England, Banker immerses us in the daily life of Pam, whose relentlessly deteriorating condition threatens to wipe out the memory of her own mother, about whom she is writing a memoir when her symptoms start to worsen. The Genius of Marian retraces both women’s lives and legacies to create a complex and powerful portrait of motherhood.
Banker—whose previous film was 2010’s award-winning Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars—spoke to me from his home in San Francisco where he lives with his wife and baby, Dylan Tilly White. As he shifts gears from making the film to getting ready to share it with the world, we talked about the ways in which he created this moving and poignant piece of work.
The film will have its world premiere as part of the World Documentary Feature Competition at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Pamela Cohn I’m always interested in the process of discovery a filmmaker has about his or her own project, particularly those projects that are so personal. You welcome an audience in immediately by opening with family home movies. The reverberations of that footage mixed with the immediacy of lives lived now is always so affecting. The years you spent being, in a way, your family’s archivist, set you up perfectly to make this kind of film. How did you work with your editor, Don Bernier, in extracting the best narrative?
Banker White Even before I identified as a filmmaker, I would film every family vacation and any other family function. So did my dad. So for the film, I could easily go back into that material. I also continued to shoot after what you see as the end of the film, and suspect I will keep doing so into the future.
Your question is a really good one because I do think a lot about how I experienced shooting this film as my mom’s son and how I experienced those two things you mentioned: the filming process itself and the editorial process. I’ve always been close to my family. I still call the town I grew up in “home” even though I’ve lived in San Francisco for the last 13 years.
I began interviewing my mom because she was struggling with writing, but more than that, I was struggling with my ability to understand what was happening with her. Filming her was initially more like a reaction to the situation rather than a decision to make a film about what was happening. That was true for the whole family. My mom was a therapist and, being the kids of a therapist, my siblings and I learned to communicate very well with one another. But it was really hard for all of us to talk about this because my mom didn’t want to hear it; she didn’t want to confront what we all knew was happening. A year into it, she would even forget the fact that her husband and her kids all knew what was going on since we’d all been to doctors’ visits with her. She would forget that we knew there was a problem. She was lying to us, but it felt different than a lie since we could all see her struggling to keep the pieces of her life together.
Interestingly, filming at that time was a lot of fun. It was the most connected I felt with her and we rarely talked about Alzheimer’s. We mostly talked about Marian—we all called her Mana—and what Mana was like as a mother and grandmother.
When I traveled back to San Francisco after that first trip, after being with her in the house for five months, I looked at all the footage I had shot during that time and it just floored me emotionally. It was like I hadn’t felt what was happening to my mom when I was there since I just engaged with her in this creative project and found that that was an intimate way to spend time with her. But it just didn’t hit me until that distance between us was there.
It’s always like that. You can record a vacation and then go back and look at it and you have a totally different experience of that time, of seeing the way the camera captures something. That was the beginning of realizing that this was really powerful material and the beginning of admitting to myself that we were starting to make a film. So the next time I went back, I talked to my mom and asked her if she’d want to make a film about what she was going through, which I think was a really difficult question for her. She’s spent a good part of her life helping other people and she’s always been such a supportive mom. She liked what it felt like to work on the film and enjoyed the time we spent together, and so she gave it her blessing. This is so important, especially as the project continues. She would go along with anything I wanted to do, so I need to hold and handle her support really delicately. I knew she was going to support this project even though it’s uncomfortable for her. As you can see in the film, she’s both really confused and trying to keep it a secret. Most of all, she was trying really hard not to let anybody know what was going on. I would ask her if she minded that we were making a film. And she’d say, “No, no, no, it’s great. A lot of people will learn from it.”
PC That’s kind of a remarkable and generous thing to say. While it’s important that you’re her son and you have this built-in history and relationship with her resulting in unmitigated trust, even in her most confused moments, she’s so present and seems to be very aware that she’s being recorded. There’s a distinct lack of self-consciousness in the filmmaking, too, since it’s clear that you weren’t necessarily shooting with an agenda or even, perhaps, an inkling of how it would be assembled in the finished cut.
BW Well, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars was my first film. I did some video work for a gallery but I was more of a sculptor and painter than a video artist. But the Sierra Leone film changed me in so many ways. I gave myself completely to filmmaking as a professional practice after that.
This is a complicated story and I’d never made a personal film before. In sculpture or painting, one can delve into really personal content. Yet there’s something about the medium of painting that asks anyone who looks at it to bring his or her own experiences to what they’re seeing and interpreting. I wanted to make a film that still invited people to have that kind of personal emotional experience, but also presented this in a way that was honest. I want it to resonate for other people who are experiencing something similar. Or even if they aren’t, there is something about the process of caring for someone while you’re losing them. You can tread lightly showing someone with this disease and still have it be impactful because there’s really no manufactured drama in it. At the same time, I was very much thinking about the fact that this was my family, my mother—someone who has given me total trust in handling what I’m going to do with it. I show her as the beautiful woman that she is and how dignified she is throughout the whole situation. But we really don’t gloss over anything either.
PC To me, the heartbreaker in the film is your father. I mean even in terms of talking about the issue of the disease, he presents such a bittersweet portrait of the one “left behind,” as well as the main caretaker. His transitions and changes throughout are the most profound in a way because you can clearly see him losing his grip and his confidence when he starts to realize that he can’t care for your mother all on his own for a variety of reasons. That’s the really, really hard stuff to watch.
BW Well, you’d asked me what the emotional impact or journey was like for me throughout all this and I agree that my dad’s journey is the more significant journey. At first, I thought he would be uncomfortable with me making the film but he’s also always been incredibly supportive. I mean I’m really my mother’s son and Marian’s grandson. I always was a mama’s boy and I’m the only artist in the family. I’d been living in the house for well over a year and probably shot close to over a hundred hours but I hadn’t really done formal interviews with my dad. I was afraid to. On a visit home, my brother asked him what it was like sitting with me for an interview for the film, and my dad told him that I hadn’t asked him yet and he wasn’t sure why.
I spent the better part of every day with my dad and it turned out that I had completely misjudged what he was feeling about what I was doing. That was the beginning of how this project transformed my relationship with my father and our ability to communicate. After I put the camera down after the first interview, it kind of opened a space where he could talk about this stuff. And he was so ready to do it. He’s not the kind of person that would choose to go to therapy. Everyone can find the space they need to get through whatever they’re going through. But when we all started to talk in a formal way about what was happening, it helped all of us a lot. It changed the way we talked when the camera wasn’t there, but the camera always gave it a formalized space to really connect with stuff that’s just really hard to talk about. We did a lot of planning for those interviews, which might sound strange. But in terms of talking about scenarios for the future, I wanted to know what he was thinking about for my mother’s care, and would he get someone in to help. The first time we talked about those things was with the camera between us.
I cry all the time when I watch this film, and I know all the sections where it happens—they are always scenes with my dad. He’s working so hard to keep it together and so when he cracks and shows you all the emotions he’s feeling, it’s very powerful and shows how deeply tortuous this whole process is for him. I want this film to explore what Alzheimer’s does to families and to the people who are devoted to the person with the dementia or any age-related disease or terminal illness. Everyone’s affected and it needs to be looked at that way. In this case though, there’s a loving and loyal primary partner who is taking the lion’s share of the responsibility. People ask me all the time how my mom is. But people who really understand the disease also ask how my dad is doing. I’m much more worried about him right now and want to make sure he’s doing all right emotionally as well as physically.
PC Another thing that puts this film in a very particular realm is the socio-economic status of your parents and the family, in general. Whether we want to admit it or not, the majority of documentary protagonists represent the underbelly of society, the have-nots and never-will-haves. We sympathize, we empathize; we resonate with their stories. But somewhere in the back of our minds, all things being equal, we can take comfort in the fact that that will most probably never be us in that situation.
A particular strength of this film is that audiences absolutely will be able to put themselves in your family’s shoes. Here is this comfortable, upper middle class white family and, at least from the outside, they live the American success story. We see the dark shadows that lurk in every family story, but for the most part, it’s very positive in the ways in which the members of the family relate to one another, how good you are to one another and how much you enjoy your good lives. We don’t see this very often.
BW I thought about this a lot. Whether I continue making personal films or not, I’ve learned a lot about how you go about making character-driven work. It’s not the only type of filmmaking I’m moved by, but as a filmmaker it’s so important for me to have that kind of personal relationship with the subject, exploring the issues of trust in navigating that relationship, the explicit collaboration in that.
I couldn’t have chosen two more different realms to explore back-to-back than the plight of Sierra Leonean refugees and my own family. What makes the films similar is that they re-define how we understand tragedy. For me, that’s the most significant piece. However, if you’re going to embark on projects like these, you need to make sure that trust and honesty are foremost, no matter the subject matter. You have to be as honest as you can be. How people interpret things is another matter, entirely.
I think you’re brave to ask me about my perception of my family as rich and privileged because a lot of people don’t say it or want to come near it. Money is hard to talk about. So people won’t even really bring up their thoughts or judgments on this or how it makes them feel when they see the house, the lifestyle, etc. But some close colleagues did mention it and so I thought about it a lot and was careful not to let that get in the way or to project people’s assumptions about how much money our family has and how it would influence someone’s way of sympathizing with our story—or not sympathizing.
PC Were you sharing footage with your mom as you were shooting? What were her various reactions?
BW I showed her a lot of footage throughout the process and we watched the finished film together. But before that, I’d never showed her the interviews with friends and family showing emotion or talking openly about "the disease." Those are the only two things she hadn’t seen. Anything that was Super-8 or 8mm family stuff of her childhood or of our family she loved watching, of course. Until I had dug it out and digitized it, nobody had watched it for years.
It is also interesting that for some of the more vérité footage of, say, my brother trying to get my mom to take her meds—while there is drama and emotion in that, it’s something that happens every single day. So in terms of my mom watching it, her emotional reaction is not necessarily anything more than recognizing familiar things—things that happen every day and that she’s aware are happening every day. She also laughs so much and it’s easy for her to find the humor in it all and her own feistiness when she sees it on screen.
Scenes of that nature weren’t ever staged for the camera. In fact, I didn’t really even plan to shoot those scenes or include them in the film. That was very early on and it is a purely observational scene. I had a small camera in my hand and it started happening.
The neurology doctor visit is always difficult for her to watch, as it is for all of us. He gives her a series of tests and questions that are designed for her to fail. It helps a doctor see how many wrong answers there are and how quickly they come. The results go into some spreadsheet to very scientifically track the rate of deterioration. I went to two visits with her before I filmed one. It was a really moving experience for me because those tests are really designed to show someone the types of cognitive skills that are affected very early on in someone with Alzheimer’s dementia. It’s a shock because it enabled me to grasp what was happening in a very concrete way, way more so than when we knew something was wrong but couldn’t really see exactly what was happening.
The film is made up of all these different kinds of ellipses. One storyline is about a progression, time passing and what’s happening, in a subtle way, to everyone in the family. Time brutally moves forward no matter what. And in the parallel story, I am working with my mom as if she’s a co-writer, and we are continuing to tell the story of Marian, the family. We’re exploring the more abstract concepts of parenting.
PC You put the relevancy of all of this above the science of the disease. I’m always grateful when I don’t have to look at graphics and statistics or listen to some “expert” drone on about things in the middle of a personal drama. You just show everything there is to show and the emotional resonance of it all tells you exactly what’s happening. The audience never steps outside of your family’s experience, not for a minute. Neither do you ask your interviewees what they think is happening; you ask them to describe their loss and their sense of fear and other emotions they’re experiencing in their own way.
I also like the ways in which you use breathtaking footage of the natural world to talk about these things. The artist in you got to have a voice, as well.
BW I think that helped me make the film a lot. I remember being in the back of my parents’ station wagon as a kid looking at the way the light played on the ceiling or something. Back then we weren’t trapped in car seats. (_laughter_) We could really look around. As an artist, I’m always reflecting on what captured my imagination as a kid. I played a lot with the camera in making this film. I was an almost 40-year-old when I moved back into my parents’ house. I hadn’t lived in their house since high school. It wasn’t the same house but it doesn’t matter because the psychology and emotions of what it feels like to be your parents’ kid again is the same when you’re with them for an extended period. I even convinced Anna, the woman who was my then-girlfriend, and now my wife—also an amazing filmmaker and artist—to move in with me.
No matter how eloquent you are when talking about your work, I feel like we all know a lot more than we’re able to articulate about how an idea is artistically expressed. But the feel and space of that kind of non-verbal poetics found its way into the film. My artistic mentor is my grandmother, Marian, and I like how she’s represented in the film. She is felt, but not over explained.
PC This leads me to comment on the title of the film, which I think is remarkable. It’s one of those titles you hear or read and you can somehow intuit something profound, even before knowing what the film is about. This was also Pam’s title for her book about Marian and that reverberation is nice, too. Can you explain the reason why your mom decided to call her biography The Genius of Marian? It connotes a lot more than just talking about your grandmother’s paintings. Genius is such a loaded word.
BW One of the earliest things I filmed was my mom asking me what I was doing. When I told her I was making a film, she asked, “Oh, the film The Genius of Marian?” Right before that, I had asked her if she wanted to talk about Marian’s Genius. And she said, “Do you mean The Genius of Marian?” I think there’s also a bit of irony in that statement. That twisting of words has more room for interpretation and her relationship with Marian was a complicated one.
The film’s title is complex because she resented Marian sometimes due to the fact that she was so into her art. Pam felt a bit abandoned by her. The title encapsulates all the experiences of what it was like to be Marian’s daughter. My mom’s not a writer but we decided to sit together and I would help her write the book, kind of like a ghostwriter. And it became this weird amalgam of both of our ideas and thoughts and words. The initial interviews were about me trying to understand what it was my mom wanted to do with this book project, which was both to be a tribute to her very talented artist mother, to look at the very complicated relationship between a parent and child in a caregiving situation, and also to pay homage to Marian’s incredible sense of humor and lust for life.
When my grandmother started showing signs of Alzheimer’s dementia, she was much older than my mom, whose condition is that of really early onset dementia. The early onset thing is much more socially complicated in certain ways. But with Marian, my mom witnessed the “genius” way in which Marian handled her condition, which is that she kind of became just more herself—wearing crazier clothes than she already did, doing more inappropriate things, telling more inappropriate jokes, laughing louder. We don’t go into this too much in the film except my mom saying she remembers how funny my grandmother was. I had no visual or recorded material to show this. My grandmother was so funny as her dementia progressed. She was in her mid- to late-80s. It wasn’t coupled with the same degree of shame and really debilitating depression my mom experiences. But my mom wanted to do this kind of autobiographical treatment of her experiences as the daughter of a very independent and strong woman who she then had to take care of. If we could sit down and write the book she’d want to write, it would be that story.
PC Are you continuing to film with her? Is it getting more difficult?
BW I don’t shoot any vérité anymore, meaning I don’t disappear into a room and observe what’s going on with my camera. But I continue to film these intimate conversations she and I have when we’re together and, of course, major life events like my brother’s wedding and when my parents met my daughter, Dylan, for the first time.
I’ve also done some really fascinating interviews with my dad that I think are going to be really useful since we plan on doing a series of short films more geared towards sharing specific insights we think would be useful for people going through this. Some of my interviews with him are really amazing. There are some nice ones with my brother, as well. As a doctor, he offers some medical knowledge and advice. So all this is geared more towards the educational content we’re producing.
In terms of your question about the difficult aspects of this, the last scene you see in the film is in the fall of 2012. She’s changed dramatically since then. To get her to interact with you, camera or no camera, you have to work a lot harder to focus her attention. What you see mostly is someone who’s very aloof. She has more tactile relationships to things. In one of the last scenes of the film, she’s feeling the photo of Marian. She’s feeling it more than looking at it. Unless you engage her in a social way, she doesn’t interact.
PC There’s a scene that plays near the end of the film, almost the final one, I think. It’s the scene where you sit your father down at a large monitor to watch an interview with Pam. Part of it shows her in a room by herself talking directly to the camera. It was obviously a very set-up scene since she’s framed perfectly and has make-up on and is sitting in a nice light. I’m bringing it up because it’s a bit of an odd set-up to have him sit and watch a recording of her. We only really see the back of his head so you can’t really gauge what’s going on with him emotionally. And then he does this really unexpected and odd gesture by pumping his fist in the air when she says something nice about him. It’s a very affecting scene, but an odd one.
That scene with my mom was recorded in 2010. And yes, it’s made up of a video diary and a set-up interview, as you suggested. I think what she says there is amazing. And she said it back in 2010 and it’s so relevant for what was going on in 2012, which is when I filmed my dad watching it and realizing that she understood where all this was going.
The decision to include it at the end of the film is that I wanted the last glimpse of my mom to be something that reflected this ability she has to communicate very complicated emotions really clearly, that shows how well she understands what all of this is like for us. My dad had never heard that from her. In the three years of her going through the beginnings of this, as close as they were, she never said those types of things to him: That it would be okay because she has this supportive family and a husband who is extraordinarily wonderful. It was so profound of a moment because he finally got to hear this from her, knowing that, of course, their relationship operated on a kind of faith where these things don’t need to be said. But it’s different when he hears that she appreciates all the love that he’s been providing.
In any documentary, when you open up a storyline in a certain way, you want to give it some closure, even though we all know life goes on, etc. For me, the biggest thing that I felt didn’t have proper closure was the relationship between my mom and my dad. I did not have that set up to be some kind of finale or final scene of the film. But when I reviewed all the footage and I thought about what that scene means, it became important. On the screen, you watch the back of my dad’s head watching and listening to what she is saying. I wanted it to evoke the idea of legacy. I thought about how people would remember my mom in this film, so the last image of her in the film needed to be worth this kind of legacy.
Ending the film with this emotional moment between my mom and my dad, even though he’s watching something recorded a couple of years earlier, seemed the right thing. As the filmmaker and their son, I feel that their relationship is the most significant piece of the story.
I’m sorry this might be a rambling answer to your last question, but I also thought about what it was like when Marian passed in 2001. I spent time with her on and off when she was in the nursing home, bedridden, and had no more language skills at all. I was in college at the time. When I would close my eyes and remember my grandmother, it took a while for the images I had of her in the last years of her life to balance with all the other images of her in my memories. We know memory is always in flux. But this is a film, a sort of final document that will never change in any significant way. I could have made different choices but a major decision for me was how to portray my grandmother in this to create a full enough portrait of her, as well.
PC I think it also speaks to some sort of improvisational spirit in a way, the spirit within which you approached piecing the story together by playing with time and memory, the reverberations between generations. Good luck with the film, Banker, and thank you so much.
BW Thank you!
Banker White is a multi-disciplinary artist splitting time between Boston, San Francisco, and Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Pamela Cohn is an American filmmaker, writer and curator based in Kosovo and Albania.